I'm never sure about those fish stickers on the backs of cars; and the whole escalation of it, of the fish with feet and then the fish eating the one with feet or vice versa; it becomes about who can trump whom, of false dichotomies of evolution and creationism, of either/ors. There are places in the world, however, where Christians are persecuted. And what always surprises me is seeing those fish stickers on the backs of cars in places like that, where it becomes a potentially bold statement of sacrifice more than a fashion statement of consumerism. In places like that, Christian identity is marked.
What is it that we do to mark ourselves?
This night of Ash Wednesday is one way. It used to be that you could tell who the Catholics and Episcopalians were by the smudges on their foreheads - maybe even a Lutheran or two. But now, as the ecumenical movement grows and churches reclaim liturgical practices and seasons, you just can't tell.
And yet, there's this odd tension in what we do on Ash Wednesday. The text we read is Jesus' warning about not praying like hypocrites or fasting with twisted faces. And then we come up and put this dirt on our forehead as if to say, "Yeah, but this is Ash Wednesday!"
A couple of years ago we placed a baptismal font at the back of the sanctuary, inviting people to take their own journey: for those who felt the need to be reminded of their brokenness, leaving the ashes seemed appropriate. For those who felt the need to be reminded of their forgiveness, washing it off seemed the faithful thing to do.
So how do we mark ourselves? How is it that people would know that we are followers of Jesus or come to see Christ in us and our lives? Is it through the fish sticker or the cross necklace or some kind of Jesus Bling? Do we get tattoos of the Trinity and wrist-piercings?
How do we mark our lives with the faith that holds us and has a claim on us? Does this smudge in the shape of the cross mean something, or is it just a form of liturgical accessorizing? Or do they help us to know and proclaim something more profound about us, that death is certain, that life is fleeting, and that eternity is waiting? Is this all a healthy reminder in a culture of never-ending youth and fiercely stubborn independence?
The mark of the ashes is temporary. It'll rub off on your pillow. The season of Lent is short-lived. Easter will be here in a few weeks already. But here's my hope: these markings of time and practice will begin to make indelible marks on our lives each and every day; that we would place reminders of who we are and whose we are.
Remember, my brothers and sisters , that we are dust; and to dust we shall return.